There are many ways for a man to die, but there is no way to bring him back after he has entered the world of dead. Catch-22 is a novel satirizing war, and because of this, it inevitably has a strong underlying theme of death. But unlike many war novels, Catch-22 doesn’t use violent depictions of fighting or bloody death scenes to denounce the evils of war; it utilizes humor and irony to make an arguably more effective point. And even more importantly, Catch-22 is ultimately a novel about hope, not death. Although the inevitability of death is still a prominent motif, it eventually leads the main character, Yossarian, to realize that the desire to live is important and also that he can’t simply live; he must live free of hypocrisy and oppression.
Nately’s whore plays a major part in conveying the message about life and death in Catch-22, even though she doesn’t become an important character until the novel nears its climax. Although Yossarian is only the messenger bearing the bad news of Nately’s death, Nately’s whore holds him responsible and follows him back to Pianosa in an attempt to murder him. Yossarian manages to repeatedly escape from her, but only as long as he continues to disobey the illogical and immoral rules of the military.
When he agrees to meet with Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, she catches him and seriously injures him. This may imply that by submitting to the oppression of the bureaucratic military system, Yossarian is only headed towards death and disaster. And in the midst of Yossarian’s final revelation and his decision to desert the military, Nately’s whore was hiding behind a door, ready to stab him. But “the knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off” (463;Ch.42). Nately’s whore is never able to kill Yossarian because he never truly gives his life to a meaningless, hypocritical cause.
Yossarian’s most startling glimpse into the terrors of war and death comes when he spends a night alone on the streets of Rome. He sees homeless children; he witnesses men beating children and dogs, a rape, and a convulsing soldier; he walks over a street littered with broken human teeth. This is one of the rare sections of the novel that does not use humor to point out the cruelty and inhumanity of the world. The scene comes to a climax when Yossarian returns to his apartment and discovers that Aarfy has raped an innocent maid and then thrown her out his window, leaving her dead on the sidewalk below.
Then, ironically, Yossarian is arrested for being in Rome without a pass and Aarfy is given an apology for the disturbance, his hideous crime going unpunished. This chapter is when Yossarian begins to really recognize the true face of the military and the meaning of Catch-22; when he goes to the brothel and the old woman tells him that the girls have all been kicked out of their home by soldiers, she explains to him that “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing” (417;Ch.39). Catch-22 is the justification for every wrong the military commits, and it overrides every other moral law. The horrors that the military creates will never stop, and Yossarian begins to realize that he cannot fight and die for a system that causes so much meaningless death.
The final step in Yossarian’s transition from defiance to hope is Snowden’s death. Although this event occurs before many of the others in the book, it functions as the climax of the novel because the reader doesn’t understand the entire sequence of events until near the end of the book. After Yossarian discovers the sickening, gigantic hole in Snowden’s ribs and watches helplessly as Snowden dies on the floor of the plane, he realizes that Snowden’s death revealed a secret. “It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.
Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all” (450;Ch.41). This final atrocity reveals to Yossarian that man is only made of matter, but the desire to live is the most important impulse a man can have. But Yossarian can’t live a life of hypocrisy or oppression under the military; this is what finally pushes him to desert. The knowledge that Orr finally paddled all the way to Sweden gives him hope, and he sees the only path he can take to be free. He knows it will be difficult, but he knows there is no alternative for him.
Although Catch-22 is a novel about war, it is not only about death. The message it ultimately conveys is one of hope. Yossarian finally realizes that the basic instinct to survive is the most important quality of a man, and that he must follow his impulse and escape from the military, which will only lead him to his death. Catch-22 may allow the military to do whatever the people can’t stop it from doing, but it can’t destroy hope.